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Home / Issue Archive / 2008 / August #8 / When is the Arctic’s turn?

№ 8 (August 2008)

When is the Arctic’s turn?

Untold riches are concentrated at the North Pole.  Recently the U.S Geological Survey published the first national evaluation of the mineral resources of this region. 

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Untold riches are concentrated at the North Pole.  Recently the U.S Geological Survey published the first national evaluation of the mineral resources of this region.  In the opinion of American specialists, there are no fewer than 90 billion barrels of unexplored oil and 1.670 trillion cubic meters of natural gas.  This is more than the proven hydrocarbon reserves of Russia.  The report says that the larger part of unexplored resources is more likely situated closer to the Russian shores and on the Alaskan plate.  Perhaps this data would help those in the United States who seek cancellation of a ban on mining exploration in the natural conservation area in the state of Alaska.  The Report of the U.S. Geological Survey is the result of four years of research, and it is the first comprehensive research available to the public.  It is one of the most reputable evaluations of the oil and gas potential of our planet’s crown.  The report implies that the gas reserves in the Arctic surpass three-fold the oil reserves, and the main part of gas reserves is in the Russian sector.  In other words, 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves, approximately 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas reserves, and 20 percent of its gas condensate, are within the polar circle. 

According to earlier estimations, up to 25 percent of the world’s hydrocarbon fuel—and much more of other rare and extremely sought-after mineral resources—lies at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.

Last August two deep-water submersibles, “Mir-1” and “Mir-2”, were successfully lowered into a giant ice hole cut by the nuclear powered icebreaker “Rossiya” in the area of the North Pole.  The bathyscaphs successfully reached the bottom at a depth of more than four thousand meters, where they took ground samples and erected a titanium Russian flag.  This operation compares to a space mission in its complexity.  Our partners in the Arctic exploration received this news with extreme nervousness.  The issue at hand is that, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a state able to prove that its continental shelf reaches 200 sea miles beyond its legally owned coastal waters has the right to all the mineral resources of the continental shelf. Russia wants to prove by this scientific research that the Lomonosov Ridge—the underwater ridge that stretches perpendicularly from the northern shores of Siberia for 2,300 kilometers to almost subpolar Canadian islands, is the extension of its continental shelf.  Having recovered from the shock, Russia’s Arctic neighbors positioned themselves for an attack.  For instance, Danish and Canadian scientists declared that the Lomonosov Ridge, running under the North Pole, is geologically connected with North American and Greenland plateau.  Representatives of these countries may differ in their opinions regarding the division of the Lomonosov Ridge among themselves, but they unanimously agree that it is not the extension of the Russian continental shelf.  Canada and the United States have declared that the earlier argument over possession of the 12,000 square kilometers of the sea bottom in the Beaufort Sea is temporarily set aside because of the necessity to rebuff Russia’s Arctic ambitions, since they threaten the claims of the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway.

“Russians realize why they need the Arctic, and in the Putin and Medvedev era they have begun to behave very aggressively,” said Robert Hubert, Deputy Director of the Center for Military and Strategic Research at the University of Calgary, as quoted on the Inopressa website. “They are ahead of everybody else.”  That’s why Canada and the United States have linked their efforts.  In August, a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker and a Canadian icebreaker will conduct a seismic survey of the bottom of the Beaufort Sea to north of the border of American Alaska and Canada’s Yukon territory.  Both countries are gathering data to support their claims to Arctic territories, where immense natural riches are hidden.

To avoid tension and open confrontation in relationships among northern neighbors, an international conference was held in Greenland at the end of May.  At the conference, which was held on Denmark’s initiative, high officials from five countries—Russia, the U.S., Norway, Denmark, and Canada—signed an agreement to follow the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. According to this Convention, arguments regarding territorial claims must be resolved in compliance with the shoreline and continental shelves.  The U.N. Commission must adopt a decision on control over the Arctic before the year 2020.  “Five countries announced their readiness to follow the rules.  I hope we are finished with the myth of fighting over the Arctic once and for all,” said the conference’s host, Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs Per Stig Moller, in a speech quoted in The Guardian.

However, questions remain after the conference.  Denmark has erected its flag on Hans Island, which is being claimed by Canada as well, and announced its plans to establish a military base and a deep-water port in the disputed region.

Denmark and Russia argue over rightful ownership of the Lomonosov Ridge.  Besides, many doubt the rightful participation of the United States, a country that has never ratified the Convention on the Law of the Sea, in the conference.

Global warming also played a role in the increased interest in the North Pole.  Permanent ice that had never melted before now does not even remain year round.  The polar ice cap has been losing 10 percent of its volume every decade for the past 50 years.  This creates new opportunities for maritime traffic and ameliorates the possibility of recovery of natural resources.  A vicious circle occurs—burning of hydrocarbon fuel leads to change in climate, which, in its turn, creates additional opportunities for development of new hydrocarbon fields.   There are already plans to start oil and gas recovery on the shelf by Greenland’s shore in the coming years.  Recently the European Union issued a report on the Arctic.  The European Union believes that the competition for Arctic resources, on which we still have only approximate data, will become the subject matter of the larger part of the 21st century.  The exploration of the Arctic shelf has recently become more active: the Anglo-Dutch energy company Royal Dutch Shell is striving to obtain the right to recover gas on the Yamal Peninsular along with Russia, and Total has already received this right at the gigantic Shtockman gas field.  American companies are trying to break through into Arctic Alaskan natural conservation areas.

There are those who oppose Arctic Ocean exploration.  These are first of all environmentalists, who demand the same ban for the recovery of mineral resources and military activity in the Arctic as in the Antarctic.  In an interview with The Guardian, Mike Townsley, press secretary of Greenpeace International, made the following statement: “It is clear to us what is going on.  They use the Law of the Sea to reach the resources of the Arctic, but ignore the laws of common sense.  First of all they are interested in the same fuel resource that leads to climate change.  It is twice as bad that everything was done behind the closed doors.  This testifies to the fact that they understand that what they are going to do is unacceptable.”

Not all oil and gas specialists look at the prospect of Arctic exploration with optimism.  There are skeptics among them as well who consider mineral resources development at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean a matter for the distant future.  Specific fields in the North Pole area are still not explored.  When it happens, the issue of the technology of recovery will arise.  The depth of the ocean at the northern top of the planet is no less than 4,000 meters.  The platforms will not be able to work at such depths.  It is possible that underwater recovery complexes will have to be created, which will be located directly at the ocean bottom, and oil and gas will have to be pipelined onto land.  Drilling at such depths presently is conceived as an extremely complicated task even without the ocean’s ice cover.

IA Regnum reports that Artur Chilingarov, member of State Duma of the Russian Federation, recently announced that Russia is preparing an application to the U.N. for obtaining an official right to widen the outer borders of its continental shelf in the Arctic in the year 2009.  The application is being prepared based on the results of the 2007 expedition, when samples of the sea floor and flora for the first time were taken at the depth of 4,261 meters.  Based on the results of the expedition, the scientists have reached the conclusion that the Lomonosov Ridge belongs to the Russian continental shelf.  “All this is being done on the basis of international law and international obligations,” emphasized Chilingarov.

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